Poor old Brick Lane. Hardly a day goes by that it doesn’t get used as a mile-long yardstick for the gentrification of the East End. So what if the Lane now boasts a Subway, a Pret, a new Premier Inn, hectares of bad street art and that fucking cereal café? It also has an incredible history, a gloriously messy Sunday market and some excellent shopping, eating and drinking… if you know where to look.
The Lane has always been a haven for immigrants. Over the centuries, Dutch, French, Irish, eastern European Jewish and most recently Bangladeshi communities have all found a home here. Today, a stroll from Whitechapel High Street to Bethnal Green Road takes you past umpteen curry houses, two tourist-trap shops selling weird expensive chocolate, a retro bowling alley and the only building in Britain to be used in turn as a church, a synagogue and a mosque. All those different cultures rubbing up against one another give Brick Lane its strange, unique energy. Things can go too far sometimes, but hey: violence is another East End tradition. The Kray twins and – maybe – Jack the Ripper were locals, after all.
Luckily, dodgy dealings these days are mostly limited to nitrous oxide and suspiciously cheap curry. Here’s how to cut the crap, dodge the tikka touts and do Brick Lane right.
Bric-à-brac of all kinds – from household goods to clothes and vinyl – every Sunday at Brick Lane Market. You’ll see plenty of junk, but duck into the eccentric Brick Lane Tea Rooms market for unusual crockery, vintage London Transport posters and taxidermy.
Books, books, books: Brick Lane Bookshop is great for London history, while a new branch of Soho’s The Society Club covers punk rock and avant-garde art.
Dried fish, fresh turmeric, tamarind paste and other essential Asian ingredients from Taj Stores. They’ve been trading since 1936.
Watch an arthouse film in the cosy screening room at Close-Up Film Centre on Sclater Street.
Truman’s beer, which was brewed on Brick Lane for three centuries but is now made in nearby Hackney Wick. Drink it today at The Archers (recently spiffed up by new owners) or the absolutely aptly named Pride of Spitalfields.
Red Stripe at the artfully run-down Cafe 1001. It’s pretty much a Brick Lane institution.
Brilliant French cooking (vraiment!) at Chez Elles.
Cinnamon buns and pickled herring at Fika, a laid-back Swedish restaurant with a nifty roof terrace.
Heavenly chilli paneer rolls at Asian confectioners Arzu. It really doesn’t shine in council hygiene tests, but authenticity doesn’t need a licence, yeah?
If you only do one thing…
Visit the London music scene’s Holy of Holies: Rough Trade East. The biggest record shop in town offers a café, bookshop, instore gigs and the city’s most famous photobooth.